Mumbai Collective 2017: A Report

Awanish Kumar

THE constitution of India is the foundational document that guides our country's polity. For every Indian citizen, the constitution secures justice, freedom of thought, expression, belief, worship and faith as well as equality of status. The constitution was the outcome of our national movement for independence from colonial rule that involved people from all strata of Indian society. It is a matter of great concern, however, that many of these constitutional guarantees available to Indian citizens are threatened in the recent period, from the renewed efforts of majoritarian forces in our society and polity. Over the last three years, we have seen an unprecedented rise in the spread of divisive and communal ideologies. This phenomenon has had covert and overt support from the central government and a set of state governments. Individuals and organisations that have dissented with these ideologies have been targeted for attack, and have even been killed. The recent murder of Gauri Lankesh in Bengaluru reminds us of the systematic nature of such attacks. There has been an extraordinary rise in the violent incidents related to ‘cow vigilantism’ across the country where majority of the victims are Muslims and dalits.

The Mumbai Collective was established last year by a group of us living in Mumbai who were concerned that the ideals of freedom, pluralism, inclusion and tolerance, as secured by the Indian Constitution, were under threat in India. The immediate context for the first edition of Mumbai Collective organised in March 2016 was a series of attacks to the constitutional values which included – the institutional murder of Rohith Vemula at the Hyderabad Central University (HCU) and consequent student protests, the attack on progressive student groups of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), the attacks on Muslims in the name of love jehad, ghar wapsi and beef ban, the murder of rationalists Narendra Dabholkar, communist leader Govind Pansare and writer M M Kalburgi. A number of academics, activists, journalists, scholars and film personalities participated in the first edition of the Mumbai Collective. The names included N Ram, Prof Gopal Guru, Prof K M Shrimali, Prakash Ambedkar, Megha Pansare, Nikhil Wagle, P Sainath, Jyoti Punwani, Naresh Fernandes, Sashi Kumar, Hamid Dabholkar, Swara Bhaskar, Mohd Zeeshan Ayub, Kabir Khan, Nandita Das, Anand Patwardhan, Sitaram Yechury, D Raja, Jitendra Awhad etc. 

Since the first edition of the Mumbai Collective, while nothing much has changed as far as the political atmosphere is concerned the situation for the masses and in particular for minorities has worsened. The attacks on Muslims and dalits continue unabated and with complete impunity. We have seen the flogging of dalits in Una, the murder of Pehlu Khan and Junaid Shaikh in the name of cow protection, the undermining of science and reason with discussions on astrology being introduced to the country's cutting-edge scientific institutions and myths from folk tales masquerading as facts of history. While freedom and pluralism are under attack on the socio-cultural front, the slogan of acche din (better days) that the current central government promised while being voted to power in 2014 has been shown to be nothing but a jumla on the people. Disenchantment has been growing. Farmers across the country are agitating for better policies towards the agrarian situation. The ill-conceived policy of demonetisation has crippled the economy and destroyed millions of livelihoods. Small traders and producers are facing an acute crisis of survival in the aftermath of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) reform. The educational system in the country also faces the grave danger of being privatised on the one hand, and subordinated to the ideologies of the communal right on the other.

It was in this background that the second edition of the Mumbai Collective was organized on December 9-10, 2017 at the Y B Chavan Centre, Mumbai. The basic mandate of the second edition was the same as the first one: to bring together like-minded people living in Mumbai so that they could hold hands together in solidarity with the struggles to protect the basic rights and liberties enshrined in the Indian constitution. Like last year, this year’s Mumbai Collective had a combination of panel discussions, talks and various cultural expressions of harmony, solidarity and protest including music, poetry, storytelling, photography etc.

The first day started with the inaugural session that featured Raosaheb Kasbe, former professor of political science, Savitribai Phule Pune University; Kanhaiya Kumar, former president, Jawaharlal Nehru University Students' Union; and Mariam Dhawale, general secretary, All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA). Raosaheb Kasbe gave a broad historical perspective on the interlinked questions of religion and caste society in India. He argued that religion has always given rise to violence and until we have a social revolution in India, our citizens won't truly love each other. He also called upon the forces of justice and fairness to unite against fear. Mariam Dhawale emphasized on the ideological pattern behind the rise in systematic targeting of minorities, women, dalits, and voices of dissent such as Gauri Lankesh. Student leader Kanhaiya Kumar said that violence is normalised in the country and people are indifferent. He pointed out that it was important to arrive at a common conclusion of saving the spirit of our constitution despite our differences within the Left and Ambedkarite forces.

The first panel session of the day was titled “Foreign Policy in Disarray”. Speakers at the session were Prabir Purkayastha, founder of Newsclick; Seema Mustafa, editor-in-chief of The Citizen; and Atul Bharadwaj, International Affairs analyst; and was chaired by Irfan Engineer. All speakers agreed that India’s foreign policy lacked a global vision, one that has shifted towards the USA, and one that is far removed from the strong voice that it used to be on West Asia. Seema Mustafa called the Rohingya crisis the most heinous attack on entire population and pointed out that India has not even spoken against it. Instead we threatened the already existing Rohingyas who migrated 15 years ago. To speak on the agenda of scientific development and scientific research there was a panel discussion on “The Glorification of Pseudo-Science”.  Vivek Monteiro, founder, Navnirmiti Learning Foundation; Vineeta Bal, biologist; formerly associated with the National Institute of Immunology; Tejal Kanitkar, assistant professor, Tata Institute of Social Sciences; spoke on the panel which was chaired by Kumar Ketkar, senior journalist, editor and political analyst. The panelists spoke about the rise in pushing the agenda of pseudo-science within educational and research centers. They suggested it was necessary to promote the identifiable contributions of science from India and uphold scientific temper which is enshrined in the directive principles of state policy. Dr Kanitkar, in her speech spoke about everyday obscurantism that went unquestioned and the glorification and reverence of the past that existed in various proportions in our lives. She said that this past was ridden with patriarchy, caste, inhuman practices and we were unwilling to let go of this past. She dedicated her talk to Rohith Vemula who was inspired by Babasaheb Ambedkar, the greatest propagator of modernity and wanted to be like Carl Sagan, and loved science.  

There was a brief break from the panel discussions for “Vidrohi Kavitayein” by Rasika Agashe and Milind Phatak. In the session, poetry of resistance collected from different parts of the country was performed. To discuss and debate “Rewriting History, RSS Style”, the speakers were historian Sucheta Mahajan, political scientist Shamsul Islam and journalist Vikhar Ahmed Sayeed. The session was chaired and moderated by Dr Ashok Dhawale, president, All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS). The panelists spoke about topics ranging from the historical opposition of the RSS to the secular spirit of India, reconstruction of fraudulent history as well as examples of the gross manipulation of history regarding the legacy of Tipu Sultan. To discuss “The Crumbling Economy”, senior journalists P Sainath and V Sridhar spoke together in the following session chaired and moderated by Vibhuti Patel, professor, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. Both journalists spoke about how demonetisation and GST crippled small businesses and the agrarian economy. They suggested that the economic calculations miss the humanitarian crisis caused in the worse-off regions in the country. 

K C Shankar from Jashn-e-Qalam performed “Apne Desh Ke Log” based on a story of the same name by Kamleshwar, who was one of the leading writers of Hindi's Nayi Kahani movement. The evening closed with a musical performance by the protest-music group ‘Banned’, following which there was a rousing performance by the troupe of Sambhaji Bhagat.

The Mumbai Collective continued on December 10 with the opening session on Kashmir by Yusuf Tarigami. Tarigami gave an impassioned speech on Kashmir asking everyone to read the instruments of accession before jumping to conclusions amidst the discussion on TV and Media. He underscored that there was no military solution, nor there was a militant solution. Kashmir was the biggest ever human tragedy and the tragedy continued because there was no dialogue and rather an attempt to understand Kashmir only through a security prism.

The second session of the day was titled “Caste, Religion and Cow Vigilantism” with Bezwada Wilson, founder of the Safai Karmachari Andolan, Pradnya Daya Pawar, writer, Harsh Mander, social activist and organiser of the recent Karwan-e-Mohabbat and Manoj Mitta, author and analyst. The session was chaired by Subodh More. Bezwada Wilson began by pointing out that the problem in India was that people did not accept the bare existence of caste. It was a matter of national shame that while India could develop and launch 104 satellites but it could not develop technologies to clean 5-feet deep septic tanks. Swacch Bharat Abhiyan did not consider the people who did the cleaning at all. Harsh Mander distinguished the spate of lynchings recently from earlier cases of violence and said that one of the most under-appreciated ideas of Babasaheb Ambedkar was fraternity. He asked everyone to fight radical hate with radical love. Pradnya Daya Pawar called Uttar Pradesh a new laboratory of Hindutva. She also called upon fellow writers to react to the newly emerging atmosphere. Manoj Mitta highlighted the evolution of cow vigilantism in the country and linked it with caste society, law and the state.

The next session was titled, ‘The Culture of Fear' with Nandita Das, Kiran Nagarkar and Mihir Desai as speakers and Sidharth Bhatia as the chair. Renowned filmmaker Saeed Mirza who sat in the audience throughout the two days of the collective in his brief address said that he was hopeful about India after seeing young people showing solidarity and being bothered by the communal atmosphere. Kiran Nagarkar in his remarks said that we were responsible too for the culture of fear because we heard their dreadful words and repeated their heinous acts. And in this process we could end up losing the one quality of virtue that distinguishes us – our humanity. Nandita Das spoke of contagious courage and the need for all like-minded people to work together even when there was no ‘calamity’ as such. Mihir Desai was hopeful that people attacked by selective targeting by the state were fighting back.

The next session on fake news was chaired by Geeta Seshu and the speakers were Siddharth Varadarajan and Pratik Sinha. Both speakers highlighted the easy mobile data and the reach of WhatsApp as reasons for rapid spread of fake news. The government also backed such fake news establishments. The media ecosystem was completely compromised and the double edged sword of social media along with fake news made it a deadly combination. A special lecture on the Gujarat model of development was delivered by Prof Ghanshyam Shah. Prof Shah underscored three components of the Gujarat Model: catchy slogans and jargon; focus on one man; and invocation of pride in primordial identities like caste and religion. In a lecture demonstration, Dhruv Sangari mesmerised the audience with his call for love and solidarity in these times of hatred and irrationality.  

The final session of the Mumbai Collective was titled, “Politics in the times of Hindutva” and was chaired by Prof R Ramakumar. The speakers were Prakash Karat and Atul Kumar Anjan. Karat emphasized on going beyond the older terms of reference and a need to rethink to counter the Hindutva forces. He said we need to defeat them politically but also culturally and ideologically. In this process, mere political manoeuvring would not be sufficient. Atul Kumar Anjan highlighted the need for a new political vocabulary to fight the Hindutva assault together.

Apart from this, two statements were read out in the Collective by individuals and organisations concerned. Queer Collective from TISS read out a statement against “The Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2016”. The Queer Collective said that the Bill was a gross violation of basic dignity and it must be stopped. Another statement was read out, released and endorsed by the Mumbai Collective condemning the brutal murder in Rajasmand, Rajasthan of Mohammad Afrazul, a migrant worker from West Bengal. There were multiple book stalls around the venue and a photo exhibition on the works of photojournalist, Padma Shri Sudhakar Olwe. Sudhakar Olwe’s series on the lives of Mumbai's conservatory workers was on display throughout the two days of the Collective. The Mumbai Collective ended on a note of unity and solidarity of all secular and democratic forces and its striving to become a platform to reiterate our commitment to uphold the syncretic traditions of our nation.

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